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Lawsuit opposes new western Duluth middle school

Three Duluth residents have filed suit to stop construction of the new western middle school, saying authorities didn't adequately consider the project's environmental impact.

Graphic: Location of proposed western middle school

Three Duluth residents have filed suit to stop construction of the new western middle school, saying authorities didn't adequately consider the project's environmental impact.

The suit is filed against the city of Duluth for actions by the Planning Commission, which voted in March to let the school project proceed without a broad environmental review.

The suit -- filed in St. Louis County District Court by Kyle Carlson, Karen Lewis and Ron Brochu -- also names the Duluth school district as a defendant.

"The proposed middle school site is a natural resource, as are many of Duluth's undeveloped areas," said Carlson, who lives adjacent to the site, in testimony submitted to the Planning Commission in February. "To develop this site would be to squander this natural resource, especially in light of the fact that there is already one developed site that would suit the purposes of a middle school."

Carlson was referring to Central High School, which will be closed after the 2010-11 school year. The district has said it plans to sell the hilltop property.

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It's not clear when the suit might be decided, but it will have to come fairly soon to make much difference. The Duluth School Board will consider bids for the first construction work on the $48 million project on Tuesday.

The school for about 1,000 students is planned for 75 undeveloped acres between Wheeler Field and Skyline Parkway, near the DM&IR Railroad tracks on the border of Lincoln Park and West Duluth. It's part of the district's major Red Plan construction project to consolidate, build and renovate school buildings across town.

The suit claims the Planning Commission violated the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act in allowing the project to advance without a full review. The suit seeks an immediate injunction and restraining order to prevent school district from doing any additional work on the project.

The suit also asks the court to order the Planning Commission to conduct a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

Katie Kaufman, spokeswoman for the school district, said district officials have "complete confidence" in the decision of the Planning Commission to let the project proceed. She noted the project has been vetted and approved by a citizens board, environmental and engineering experts, the School Board and the Planning Commission.

The suit claims that construction will destroy 2.5 acres of the 7.4 acres of wetlands on the site, leading to additional runoff of storm water, sediment and contaminants into nearby Merritt Creek and the St. Louis River estuary. The suit also claims that the wetland disturbance could release mercury into the environment. Mercury that falls in rain often builds up and is stored in wetlands.

The suit also says the site includes a rare plant, moschatel, that is on the state's list of Species of Concern, and that the school will block a major corridor for wildlife travel, a concern raised by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The DNR also raised concerns about increased runoff and erosion downhill from the site, which will be substantially covered by building and blacktop.

Though the school district would be required under state law to replace the wetlands, DNR officials strongly suggested that the wetlands be replaced within the same Merritt Creek watershed to help local fish and wildlife -- not replaced through credits purchased for wetlands in other counties.

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More than a dozen people submitted testimony to the Planning Commission against the project, including Gary Glass, a School Board member who has been a strong opponent of the Red Plan.

In testimony submitted to the Planning Commission in February, Glass, a scientist and mercury expert, raised the same, seldom-seen concerns regarding mercury release from the wetland materials that would be dug from the site.

Glass said Tuesday he had not seen the lawsuit but reiterated that several better-suited sites are available for a new middle school, including the site of current Central High School and Morgan Park Middle School.

"There are a multitude of alternate choices that not only avoid the environmental problems but also save millions of dollars and avoid other problems," Glass said.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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